Public Transport – The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

An address delivered at the launch of the book "Trams, Trolleybuses and Railways – Municipal Transport History 1880s -1963" held at the Town Hall, Penang, Malaysia on Monday 23rd January 2006

The new year begins with two good hopes – firstly, the decision to set up some semblance of a Klang Valley Transport Authority to ensure a coordinated and integrated system and secondly that there will be a major infusion of new and additional buses to enhance the service in the greater Kuala Lumpur area.

The "bad" lessons of years of neglect, disjointed and sadly, haphazard and inept services of public transport compounded by the bitter and expensive lessons of some ill-thought mega failure is finally generating some ‘common sense' thinking that every progressive country has learnt – that the government must courageously lead in providing and seriously implement a clear framework for a legally, economically and ecologically sustainable system which is holistic, comprehensive and integrated.

The lessons must now go quickly national. And they must go to the states and to our towns and cities. The culture of haphazard "quick money" types and other ill-informed vested interests leading to the destruction of our towns and cities has to stop!

It is in our interests, economically, ecologically and from the point of equity. It will be good for the people and for the country and even give new credibility to the government's good governance campaign.

Nowhere is the situation more sad than in Penang, where one of the best public transport systems of Asia prior to independence has deteriorated into what can only be called a scandal.

From a historic trams and trolley system a world class ferry system (that for years was so profitable it supported the port operation), an excellent competitive and efficient bus service and a network of trishaw and bicycle use that was ecological sustainable and very friendly, we have degenerated into the bottom of the class!

Now we have a shamefully pathetic bus service, notorious for its conditions and performance – an ugly blight on our record - and a taxi system that is blatantly out of control, with neither the taxi drivers nor the public happy. The ferry service is a shadow of its old excellence and the two terminals show the utterness of ineptitude and ugliness. The bridge was never designed with public transport in mind and the saga of its extension to additional lanes began with people being unable to even find the old engineering plans! It does not inspire confidence knowing the number that were killed in "accidents" while building it!

We have five Ministers, and ministries involved – Transport, Public Works, Entrepreneur and Cooperatives, Prime Minister and Finance - not forgetting the State government and local authorities. They are also lead by key people from four major political parties, and of course their interests. The situation in Penang is in such disarray that it can only be described as pathetic for both the State and the Federal Authorities that are "leaders" moving to Vision 2020 – so much shortsightedness is truly a scandal and a shame for a nation that is among the pride of the developing world!

Two mega projects are dangerously close to being launched in Penang – the Penang Outer Ring Road (PORR) and a second bridge, both of which are being done without an adequate integrated plan and a proper Penang State led authority. The recent cantankerous wailings of the different parties involved State and federal only confirm that the present situation is unconscionable, even irresponsible.

PORR is a classic example of everything that is bad planning - how it was designed and allocated, to whom it is allocated, how much direct and indirect subsidies (believed to be in the region of RM250 Million through rights and reclamation etc and soft loans) is truly bad fiscal policy. And there are already heavy subsidies to the automotive industry and to fuel, which again is big issue not being addressed.

The 2nd Penang Bridge again reflects a mega project that is being pushed by vested interests whose main interests will be likely the sad culture of "quickie" upfront money making and the public will be left with the consequences.

Both these projects should be put in what the Information and technology people call the "Trash Bin" - the Ministry of Finance and the Economic Planning Unit of the Prime Minister's Department should take the lead in stopping them!

Instead, the following five point plan should be seriously considered:

  1. Setting up a State Wide Transport Authority with full control over transportation policy in the State, under the clear and unambiguous leadership of the Chief Minister of Penang.
  2. Quick investment into public transport including reviving the bus, trams and trolley systems.
  3. Invest in one of Penang's greatest underutilized assets - water transport (a new hub could be the new State Assembly planned at a sea front location which could serve as a water hub with our Chief Minister setting the lead for the use of water taxis / limousines!)
  4. Integration in public transportation between the Mainland and the Island to reduce the need for use of the Penang bridge by private cars.
  5. A long term vigorous plan for traffic calming and people friendly transport, with emphasis on making walking and cycling comfortable and attractive with tree lined streets.

We have a Prime Minister from Penang who is also the Finance Minister and controls the Economic Planning Unit. Just as he has taken the lead to initiate a Culture of Integrity, he should take the lead for a "Culture of People Friendly Transport". We truly need his leadership in rescuing Penang from its public transport morass. We also need to make Public Transport an essential core ingredient of the Ninth Malaysia Plan.

If real leadership is not demonstrated in this critical time, history will record that we messed a great opportunity for making Penang , and Malaysia, a healthier and more people-friendly place.

Let us move from a "car"ing society to a really caring society!

Thank You.

*Dato' (Dr.) Anwar Fazal is Director, Citizens International, and a former Senior Advisor with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) on Urban Governance. He has been active in sustainable transport issues in Asia and the Pacific including the founding of the Sustainable Transport Network for Asia and the Pacific (SUSTRAN) and Sustainable Transport Environment Penang (STEP). He is a reciepient of the Right Livelyhood Award, popularly known as the "Alternative Nobel Prize", and lives in the island of Penang


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